Saudi Arabia opens airspace to Israeli flights

Saudi Arabia must open its airspace to all flights to and from Israel, a foreign policy victory for US President Joe Biden a few hours before he was to arrive in the kingdom.

Biden, who hopes his trip will reset US relations with the Gulf state amid the turmoil in the global oil market, hailed the Saudi announcement as a “historic decision” and credited his administration for helping mediate the deal.

The announcement gives Biden success on his first trip to the region as president, after his predecessor Donald Trump helped mediate peace agreements between Israel and four Arab countries.

However, Saudi Arabia had refrained from joining the 2020 Abrahamic Treaty, in which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco established diplomatic relations with Israel. The kingdom, which considers itself the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites and a leader of the Muslim world, has insisted that Israel resolve its conflict with the Palestinians before it could normalize relations with Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia had already allowed some flights to Israel to use its airspace. The decision will cover all airlines that drastically reduce travel time between Israel and Asia.

The announcement came after US-mediated negotiations between the Kingdom and Israel on security arrangements on two Red Sea islands that Egypt had transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Israel is expected to agree to the new arrangement, which involves the transfer of multinational forces that had been stationed on the islands as part of a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the daily ruler, has signaled his interest in improving relations with Israel. Both countries see Iran as their regional rival, and Tehran has supported Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have attacked installations in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is leading a military intervention against the rebels in Yemen’s civil war.

The United States and Israel want to encourage closer military and defense cooperation in the region against Iran. Saudi Arabia already has secret intelligence and security links with Israel, but no new cooperation is expected during Biden’s visit.

Biden will meet with Saudi leaders on Friday after arriving in the Red Sea city of Jeddah from Israel, including a separate session with the Crown Prince and his ministers. He will attend a golf summit on Saturday that includes the leaders of Egypt and Jordan.

Although the United States has pressured the Kingdom and other golfers to increase oil production to tame violent global prices, no movement in production is expected during the visit. U.S. officials expect an agreement to pump more oil in the coming months.

Still, it will provide an opportunity to reset ties between Washington and Riyadh that have been strained since Biden took office.

Biden had promised to make the country a “pariah” over the assassination of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by Saudi agents in Turkey. The CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed had sanctioned the operation, something the prince has denied.

Biden has downplayed the meetings for weeks, saying he primarily visited Saudi Arabia for a summit and that his regional trip was aimed at promoting peace. But his visit to Riyadh is seen as a facial expression and a recognition that he must do business with Prince Mohammed, who can rule the country for decades to come.

Human rights groups and relatives of imprisoned Saudi and Egyptian dissidents have criticized Biden for the planned meetings with Prince Mohammed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Biden had also rejected Sisi after taking office, calling him almost a year and a half later for the first time after Egypt had brokered a ceasefire to end fighting between the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza and Israel.

A senior U.S. government official said Biden would discuss human rights during the visit. But when asked by reporters on Thursday, Biden declined to say whether he would raise Khashoggi’s killings with Prince Mohammed. He said his view of the assassination “is absolute, positive” clear, but the visit was aimed at restoring American influence in the Middle East.

The senior US administration official said Biden and Saudi leaders would discuss “strengthening and deepening the ceasefire in Yemen,” balancing energy markets as we look forward to the coming months “and technological cooperation on 5G and 6G, among other questions.

The United States has been concerned that the Gulf states have used Chinese 5G and are wary of their growing ties to Beijing.

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